The Delights - and the Dangers - of Sporting Delusions

By Paul Gardner

The way that so many people involved in sports manage to live happily with the most extraordinary delusions continues to bewilder me.

George Orwell came up with the term "doublethink" to describe a person's ability to accept two mutually contradictory beliefs. A term that does not, it seems to me, go quite far enough to describe the sports mindset I'm talking about. There, it is not so much doublethink as double act, the ability to seriously face two rather different lives, two contrasting sets of "reality."

And, whenever the two conflict, which they inevitably and quite frequently do, to invariably come down on the less plausible side. To plump not for reality, but for the sports delusion.

A couple of instances. Take the phrase "politics has no place in sport." No one with more than five minutes experience in the running of a sports organization, from a youth club up to FIFA, can possibly believe that. Yet, by the most extraordinary convolutions in the definition of the word politics, and with a good deal of selective blindness, believed it is. With conviction.

There is even, among the ivory towers of FIFA in Zurich, a belief that sport -- in this case soccer -- is above the law. FIFA is trying to convince the world that soccer players are not workers -- i.e. people who do a job and get paid for it -- but some special (evidently superior) breed that should be exempt from the European Union laws governing employment.

On more than one occasion FIFA, despite its demands that politics stay out of soccer, has blatantly meddled in the internal governmental affairs of its member nations (though only the small nations!), requiring national federations to ignore their own governments, and do instead what FIFA tells it.

There is, too, a widespread belief that money plays no role in soccer. This is really a double deception -- a belief not merely that money does not enter into sporting merit, but that it should not, as though there is a moral dimension to sports that precludes filthy lucre.

How else to explain the outrage that surfaced in England last year when the sheiks from Abu Dhabi spent millions & millions to buy Manchester City and threatened to spend much more signing top players? Right from the top, from Lord Triesman, the Football Association chairman, came this: "Most of us, even the most partisan, want genuine footballing competition where success cannot simply be bought."

Unreal. One look at the clubs that have just won the championships in Italy, England and Spain (and the clubs that finished right behind them) makes nonsense of any and all assumptions that money is not a huge factor in sports. Sure, at the top level we may be reaching a point where it doesn't matter that much, but only because the amounts involved are so vast that the differences in wealth border on the meaningless.

What I am talking about is the external -- and, I believe, rather dangerous -- manifestation of sporting doublethink. The internal doublethink is part of the sport, any sport. It starts with the fans, where the "my team is always right" mentality is part of the very definition of being a fan. Harmless? I guess so -- though outbursts of hooliganism, and idiotic statements from people who should know better bring warnings of something more noxious. I have in mind Bill Shankly's famous and mischievous notion that soccer is "much more important" than a mere matter of life-or-death.

In the middle -- part of the fans but not quite with them, and not quite, yet, with the administrators - we have the coaches. They are required in this modern media age to have an opinion about everything that happens on the field. But however intelligent they may be, they are forced to play the delusional game. To bend the truth to suit the requirements of their team, and their job, and to exercise selective blindness when the facts are simply too glaring to bear a biased explanation.

The sporting delusion is fine with me -- indeed, I can't see either the attraction of sports, or much future for them, without it. But ... when it is taken too far, when it overflows into real life, when the delusion seems to replace reality, then the questions start.

What to make of things when the delusion -- as in some of the actions of FIFA -- assumes the arrogance of power? And when the delusion grows into some sort of dementia and leads directly to tragedy, as it has done far too often in soccer's recent history. As it so sadly and futilely did just a few days ago when an Arsenal fan in Kenya is reported to have hanged himself ... simply because Arsenal lost a soccer game.

I say "simply." Evidently, it was not "simply" to this misguided soul. But it surely should have been, and I cannot believe that anything -- any action, any statement -- that encourages such deadly intensity in sporting involvement is healthy.

The corniest of the sporting cliches remains "It's only a game." But it may well be the healthiest.


1 comment about "The Delights - and the Dangers - of Sporting Delusions".
  1. Joseph Breault, May 18, 2009 at 9:30 a.m.

    The notion of doublethink applies to all life in general and I have no argument at all with the delusional aspect of sport. I do however have an issue with European Union rules as they pertain to employment. The rules prevent may from the outside from being employed in Euro countries. It is protectionism at it's worst. My son made a professional team in Norway, but was unable to get a work permit because of this protectionism. The same rules do not evenly exist worldwide and I feel FIFA in Europe is trying to even the playing field and should be involved.

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